With all the hype surrounding the upcoming next-generation consoles, one gaming story that flew under the radar over the last couple of weeks has been the discontinuing of the Nintendo 3DS. The 3DS is arguably the last successful true handheld gaming platform – the Nintendo Switch is a hybrid, and the PlayStation Vita didn’t come close to matching the 3DS in terms of sales. As the console’s life comes to an end, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look back on some of its accomplishments.
I’ve never been massively interested in handheld gaming. I didn’t own an original Game Boy, and on past handheld systems, like the Game Boy Advance and the first Nintendo DS, I basically played Mario Kart and not much else. When home consoles and PC offered better graphics and generally more well-rounded experiences, that was how I preferred to play. Even when I was much more interested in gaming as a hobby, I was still content to wait to get home from work; I never felt that I needed a system I could play on the go. So that was the mindset I had as the Nintendo 3DS launched in 2011.
When I first encountered a 3DS, I confess to being unimpressed. Though the system did offer some improvements over the older DS, which had been released in 2005, it didn’t seem to be massively better, and the almost-identical dual screen design left me underwhelmed. Its autostereoscopic 3D felt like a total gimmick too; I was convinced that someone came up with the name “3DS” and then made a product to fit! There were a lot of reports at the time of the 3D screens causing headaches and migraines, and I believe Nintendo issued official advice not to use the device in 3D mode for more than an hour at a time.
So for a number of reasons I found the 3DS an underwhelming prospect at first. I had a Wii and an Xbox 360 by this point, so I wasn’t short of ways to play games, and having never really felt the need to play games while travelling or commuting I was content to give the console a pass. However, I ended up changing my mind for a couple of reasons. The first was that I really was quite keen to be able to play Mario Kart 7, and secondly my girlfriend at the time wanted to be able to play some 3DS titles together. What really sealed the deal, though, and convinced me that I needed to get a 3DS for myself was Animal Crossing: New Leaf.
I’d been dimly aware of the Animal Crossing series, but as someone who hadn’t owned a GameCube the first title wasn’t one I got to play for myself. New Leaf sounded fantastic, though, with lots of customisation options – and I do love a game with plenty of customisation! It was this game that finally pushed me into spending my money and buying a Nintendo 3DS.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a game I’ve sunk innumerable hours into in the seven years since it released. It was so much fun to play with a friend, with almost limitless single-player gameplay and a ton of fun mini-games to play in multiplayer. It’s also the kind of game that’s very easy to pick up for a few minutes at a time. I would find myself regularly picking up my 3DS during moments of downtime to perform a single small task in my town.
Mario Kart 7 was no disappointment either, and I had lots of fun with that title. Regular readers may remember that I used to work in the games industry, and for a time I worked in a large office where several colleagues also had 3DS consoles and enjoyed Mario Kart 7. We’d often get together during breaks or downtime and use the 3DS’ Download Play feature to race against one another wirelessly. It was great fun!
I loved the customisation options that Mario Kart 7 introduced. There were different kart pieces that could all be selected prior to the race, and that was an innovation for the series. Mario Kart Wii had introduced a broad range of karts, but Mario Kart 7 was the first entry to allow players to choose different tyres, different kart frames, etc. It also introduced a first-person viewpoint (which was seldom used), and the ability for karts to glide.
So those are undoubtedly my top two games from the system. Animal Crossing: New Leaf in particular was a game I was still playing even earlier this year; it has incredible longevity. Let’s look at a few other titles that did well on the system.
Obviously there were the obligatory Pokémon titles: Pokémon X & Y and Pokémon Sun & Moon released on the 3DS and though Pokémon has never really been my thing, I can acknowledge that the games are among the console’s best-sellers. Both titles (or all four, I guess) were considered iterative rather than transformative in the way the Switch title Pokémon Sword & Shield has been, but at the time they were well-received by fans.
Donkey Kong Country Returns was ported from the Wii, and obviously had to undergo a minor graphical downgrade to work on the less-powerful handheld system, but nevertheless was great fun. This was one of Nintendo’s big experiments with porting more modern titles to their handheld platform; older titles like Super Mario 64 had succeeded on the original DS, but there was a question-mark over how well a Wii title would work. Because Donkey Kong Country Returns is a 2D platformer, the 3DS held up remarkably well. Games like this also set the stage in some respects for the porting of “bigger” titles to the Nintendo Switch a few years later, and now it’s not uncommon to hear people say they can’t wait to play a Switch port of their favourite title so they can play it on the go.
The two main Mario games on the 3DS – New Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario 3D Land did well too, and both were enjoyable. I loved Mario’s return to the 2D platforming genre on the Wii, and the 3DS title was more of the same. Super Mario 3D Land was okay, but didn’t really bring a lot to the table. It was criticised by some self-proclaimed “hardcore gamers” for offering players a way to skip tricky levels when they’ve been unable to get through after ten or more attempts. We could talk all day about difficulty options and accessibility – and perhaps we should one day – but suffice to say the argument was particularly stupid, as the inclusion of such options doesn’t change the main part of the game in any way.
Aside from games, the Nintendo 3DS leaned heavily into being a connected device that could do things like play YouTube videos and communicate with friends. It could connect to the internet via wi-fi, which was something home consoles at the time either couldn’t do or could only do with additional accessories. It also came out of the box with a basic augmented reality minigame, and thus was my first real experience with AR. Augmented reality never really took off in the way it could have, and in that respect feels gimmicky even today, but it was nevertheless interesting, and it’s something that the console was set up for – if any developers had been interested!
The 3DS had a camera that could not only take digital photos, but was also capable of taking autostereoscopic 3D photos. The 3D functionality in general was not something most folks were interested in, but again this is something that had potential in 2010/11 to take off, and if it had done so we would perhaps be hailing the 3DS as a pioneer! Remember it was around this time that 3D televisions were being pushed as “the next big thing” along with 3D blu-rays. Had the public been more receptive to 3D as a whole, some of these features would have surely been refined and reused.
Nintendo could see the writing on the wall for 3D, though, and released the Nintendo 2DS only a couple of years after the 3DS launched. The 2DS was marketed at kids, and was a less-expensive variant of the console that didn’t have the autostereoscopic 3D functionality. Partly released to overcome the worries of parents who’d heard about the problems that 3D could cause, the 2DS did well in that market. I couldn’t get past the fact that it didn’t fold up, though!
At a time when the Wii U’s failure threatened Nintendo as a company, the 3DS helped them tick over. It remained a profitable system, and even at the height of the Wii U’s problems in 2012-13, the 3DS continued to churn out titles and move units. The importance of its success in that period to Nintendo can’t really be overstated – without the money it was bringing in, Nintendo would have been in a much more shaky position.
Before Nintendo tried (and failed) to recapture the “hardcore gamer” market with the Wii U, the 3DS continued the trend of appealing to casual and occasional players in a much broader market. Titles like the Brain Age series, Sudoku Party, Nintendogs + Cats, and even Tomodachi Life appealed to many people who wouldn’t have considered themselves “gamers.” I know of disabled and elderly folks who enjoyed the 3DS for its casual puzzle and brain training titles, and the system was a gateway into the gaming hobby for kids who wanted to play some of the cuter titles. In that sense, the 3DS was an important platform, even if it wasn’t as transformative as smartphones and tablets.
The 3DS gave me one of my favourite games of the last decade in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and one of the best multiplayer experiences in Mario Kart 7. For those two games alone I can say it was a fun system, and I greatly enjoyed my time with it. As smartphones have become a major gaming platform, it’s hard to see how another dedicated handheld gaming system could replicate the 3DS’ success. Even Nintendo themselves have recognised this, releasing mobile games that feature some of their biggest characters and franchises. With the system being discontinued in 2020, it may be the last ever dedicated handheld gaming system that isn’t either a phone or tablet.
The Nintendo 3DS – and many of the games mentioned above – is the copyright of Nintendo. Promo screenshots courtesy of press kits on IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.